A SOLDIER'S PROMISE
WHEN A PROMISE BECOMES A TEMPTATION…
Look after his best friend's widow and kids. It was a promise Levi Talbot was determined to keep. But returning to Whispering Pines, New Mexico, where he was once known as the local troublemaker, wasn't easy for the former soldier. Especially when gorgeous Valerie Lopez really wants nothing to do with him…and Levi can't get her out of his head!
Val knows she needs Levi's help—her house is in chaos and she's juggling two young kids with a fledgling business. So she lets him take over the repairs—but there's no way she's letting Levi make himself at home! Since her husband's death, Val has kept her heart locked away…but what if the handsome veteran she’d once crushed on as a teenager is the key to her future?
Sweat streamed down Levi Talbot’s back as he sat in his pickup across the street, watching Valerie Lopez paint the window trim of a house he hadn’t set foot in for…damn. Ten years, at least.
She was even skinnier than he remembered, sharp shoulder blades shifting, bunching over the scoop of a white tank top, teasing the waistband of her low-rise jeans. Her pale hair was still long, wadded on top of her head, pieces sticking out every-which-way. In a nearby play yard a dark-haired baby sat gnawing on a plastic toy, while her older sister lay on her belly on the mottled floorboards, quietly singing as she scribbled, bare feet swinging to and fro. Then the little girl shoved to her knees, thrusting the open coloring book toward her mother.
“Mama! I gave her hair like mine! See?”
Levi saw Val glance over, her smile gentle as she bent to get a better look. Chuckling softly, she fingered the girl’s deep brown curls.
“A huge improvement, I’d say,” she said. The child softly giggled, making Val smile even bigger, and Levi flinched.
How the hell he was supposed to do this? Whatever this was.
And why the hell had it never occurred to him he might actually have to make good on that dumbass promise he’d made to Tomas when they’d first enlisted?
A breeze lanced his damp shirt, making him shiver. Squinting in the bolt of sunlight glancing off the sharply angled tin roof, Levi frowned at the house, which seemed to frown right back at him. An uneasy cross between Victorian and log cabin, the house seemed to slump in on itself, like it was too tired to care anymore. Or had finally succumbed to its identity crisis. And slapping some paint over what was most likely rotting wood wasn’t going to change that.
He could relate.
He waited for an SUV to pass – not much traffic on this stretch of Main Street, the last gasp of civilization before miles of nothing – before getting out of his truck, his boots crunching on asphalt chewed up even worse than usual after last winter’s heavy snow. A hawk keened, annoyed, from a nearby pinon, branches tangling with the deep blue sky. From inside the house, a dog exploded into frenzied barking. Val and the child turned, the little girl’s gaze more curious than concerned. Her mother’s however…
Yeah. Considering she’d hadn’t exactly been a fan before he and Tommy had enlisted, Levi sincerely doubted that was about to change. Promise or no promise. In fact, what he saw in those blue eyes could only be described as…well, fierce would work. Pissed off was more likely.
He stopped at the bottom step.
“Levi.” Val hauled the baby out of her little cage, tucked her against her ribs. Close up, she seemed even smaller, probably not even coming to his shoulders. He remembered, though, how her smile could light up the whole town. Not that she’d ever given him that smile. “Heard you were back.”
He nodded, unsure of what came next. Hating that this puny little blonde was unnerving him more than driving supply trucks along dusty, mountainous roads that might or might not have been booby-trapped by the Taliban.
“Last week, yeah.”
The baby grabbed hold of a hank of her mother’s hair, tried to stuff it in her mouth. The older girl sidled closer; Val looped her arm around the girl’s shoulders, as dark eyes exactly like her father’s regarded Levi with that same intense gaze. Had Val ever mentioned Levi to his daughter? Had Tommy?
“For good?” Val said.
“For now, anyway.” The dog’s barking grew more frantic. “So. These are your girls?”
Val shot him an are-you-nuts? look, but she played along. “Yes. This is Josie,” she said, giving the older girl’s shoulders a quick squeeze. “And this is Risa.”
Laughter, in Spanish. Levi’s heart knocked – Tommy had never even seen his second daughter.
“Don’t,” Val whispered, her eyes shiny.
“—I couldn’t get back at the time,” Levi finished through a clogged throat, remembering his shock when he’d gotten the call from Tommy’s dad. “I asked, but they said no.”
Her face said it all: And exactly what good would that have done?
Along with, You can leave now. Except he couldn’t. Because he’d made a promise. One he fully intended to keep.
Whether his best friend’s widow was good with that idea or not.
* * *
Val’d figured she’d run into Levi eventually – his parents didn’t live far, and there was only one halfway decent grocery store in town – but she hadn’t counted on him actually seeking her out.
Of course, her rational side knew Levi Talbot wasn’t responsible for her husband’s death. That particular honor went to whoever planted that roadside bomb near some godforsaken Afghani village with a name Val couldn’t even pronounce. But if Levi hadn’t joined the Army six years ago, Val highly doubted that Tommy – who’d worshipped his best friend since high school, for reasons Val had never understood – would’ve decided to enlist, too.
A thought that ripped open barely healed wounds all over again.
“Josie, why don’t you go inside?” she quietly asked, smiling down at her daughter. At least this one might remember her daddy. Although considering how much he’d been gone…
“Levi and I just need to talk alone for a sec, baby. And don’t let the dog out, okay?”
Josie shot Levi a questioning look before shoving open the stubborn door and wriggling past the dog to get inside. Only after the door clicked closed did Val turn back to Levi, as muscled and tall as Tomas had been slight. All the Talbot boys were built like their father, tough and rough and full of surprising angles, like they’d been hastily hewn out of the mountains holding silent watch over sleepy Whispering Pines. Oh, yeah, Levi Talbot was one good-looking sonofagun, despite badly needing a shave and a half-grown out buzz-cut that wasn’t doing him any favors—
“So you’re living here now,” Levi said. Carefully, like she was a horse who might spook. Val set Risa back in her play yard and handed her a toy, then crouched, gripping the top of the pen.
“Temporarily. Since Tommy’s grandmother moved in with his folks, the family’s said we can stay as long as we need.” She heard a creak behind her as he came up onto the porch.
“Big place for three people.”
As in, way bigger than Val needed. Five bedrooms, three baths. Dark. Dreary. “Yeah. It is,” she said, straightening in time to see Levi’s gaze flick over the worn porch floorboards, the gap-toothed porch railings.
“Needs a lot of work.”
Despite the situation, a smile pushed at Val’s mouth. “Part of the deal was that I get it fixed up. So they can get top dollar when it goes on the market. After everything they’ve done for me, I couldn’t exactly say no. Besides…” She almost smiled. “It would break Lita’s heart, if I wasn’t here.”
Levi’s brows dipped. “They expect you to foot the bill?”
“Of course not. It’s not my house, is it?”
He was staring at her. Not rudely, but intently, his muddy green eyes focused on her like lasers. Exactly like he used to do when they were younger, as though he couldn’t figure her out. Or more likely, why his best friend would prefer her company to his. And damned if it didn’t make her every bit as uneasy now as it did then—
“For pity’s sake, Levi – why are you here?”
If her outburst threw him, he didn’t let on. Although his Adam’s apple definitely worked before he said, “Tommy was my closest friend, Val. I was best man at your wedding. Did you think I’d come home and not check on you?”
Risa began to fuss; Val picked her up again, pressing her lips into her curls, cool and soft against her hot face. “At least you got to come home,” she murmured, then lifted her gaze to Levi’s, the hurt in his eyes almost enough to make her feel like a bitch. Almost. Because there were days when her anger was about the only thing keeping her from losing it. That, and love for her daughters, she thought as Risa yawned, then plugged her thumb in her mouth and settled against Val’s chest.
“And as you can see,” she said, ignoring her stinging eyes, “I’m okay. So. We’re good.”
Levi did that staring thing again, his mouth stubborn-set, the earlier devastation in his eyes replaced by something else Val couldn’t quite put a finger on, but knew she didn’t like.
“This place was a wreck fifteen years ago. I can only imagine what it’s like now. Tommy’s kids…” He paused, his nostrils flaring when he took a breath. “They deserve better than this.” Another pause. “And so do you.”
His words hit her. Hard. Not that people hadn’t been kind since her return. But it’d been an uncomfortable kindness, mostly, a ragtag collection of mumbled “sorries” and brief, awkward hugs, soon replaced by either gaping silence or a false cheeriness that made her want to scream. With Levi, though – it wasn’t the same, that’s all. Although it wouldn’t be, would it?
“You can give me a list, if you want. Might as well start with this porch, though—“ He shifted his weight into the next plank over, making it squawk. “Some of these floorboards look pretty sketchy—”
He looked up, his brow creased. “Yeah?”
It was all she could think to say. Not enough, however, to provoke an answer.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” he said softly, then went down the steps and back across the street, where he got into a black pickup, slamming the door before taking off. Toward his parents’ house, she imagined, where she’d heard via the grapevine he was staying.
Val rearranged the now sleeping baby in her arms and grabbed the wet paintbrush, then went back inside, where she dumped the brush into the chipped kitchen sink before hauling Risa upstairs to put her in her crib. This and Josie’s room were the only ones she’d painted so far: a pale aqua in here, yellow in Josie’s. The gouged pine floors still needed to be redone, though. Along with a dozen other projects that made Val’s head hurt to think about.
Because the house was a wreck, the victim of decades of benign neglect and an old woman’s failing eyesight. Yes, being so close to Tommy’s parents was a blessing, and the family was being very generous, in so many ways. But the idea of going through renovations on top of everything else….
All of which had sounded perfectly feasible when Angelita Lopez had promised the house to them two years ago, for when Tommy came back home.
A thought Val deliberately let linger, as though to toughen her heart. So when this one – she leaned over the crib to finger Risa’s soft curls – asked about her daddy, Val would be able to speak with love, not pain. Less pain, anyway.
Risa flipped onto her back, arms splayed like she was making snow-angels. A smile flickered across the baby’s mouth, making Val smile in return, her heart swell. Because life, she sternly reminded herself, was about cherishing what you had, not regretting what you’d lost. About accepting the gifts that came your way. Even those that, at first glance, seemed more trouble than they were worth. Like this butt-ugly house.
Like, say, offers from the last man in the world you wanted to deal with right now – or ever – to help fix up said butt-ugly house.
Back downstairs, she peeked into the cave-like living room, a hodgepodge of dull, dark wood and mismatched furniture pieces. Eyes glued to the TV screen, Josie sat cross-legged on the sofa, pointy elbows digging into scabbed bare knees. The hound stretched on the cushion beside her, dead to the world, chin and paws propped on the sofa’s arm.
“Is he gone?” Josie asked.
“He is. Whatcha watching?” As if she didn’t know.
Val smiled. “Again?”
The little girl shrugged. “I like it,” she said, and Val’s heart twisted. On his last leave – two Christmases ago – Tomas and Josie had watched the movie together a million times. Then Josie forgot about it…until she found the DVD when they unpacked.
“This was Daddy’s favorite scene,” her daughter said softly, and Val decided this was part of that toughening-up-her-heart thing. Although if a stupid movie helped her baby still feel connected to her father, she’d take it. Because Val knew those memories would fade, replaced by a whole life’s worth of new ones. Oh, there’d be scraps left, of course, but they’d be as soft and faded as the ribbons from Val’s wedding bouquet.
“Fried chicken okay for dinner?”
Josie nodded again, then pulled her knees up to her chin, her far-too-old gaze swinging to Val’s.
“So that was Levi,” Josie said, and Val nearly choked.
“It was. Did…Daddy talk to you about him?”
“Uh-huh,” she said easily, her gaze returning to the TV. “He said, if anything happened to him? Levi would take care of us.”
Val could barely hear her own voice for the clanging inside her head. “When did Daddy say that?”
Josie shrugged. “Before he left. The last time. He said, if he didn’t come back, Levi would make sure we were okay. Because they were best friends, that Levi always had his back. That…” The little girl frowned, like she was trying to remember, then smiled. “That except for you, he trusted Levi more than anyone in the world.”
Val dropped onto the edge of the craptastic armchair at right angles to the sofa, pressing her hand to her stomach as she rode out a new wave of anger. What the hell were you thinking, Tommy? To confide in Josie – who was only five at the time – rather than her…
Not to mention even suggest that he might not come back…
Val shut her eyes, breathing deeply. Funny, how, with her background, Val had always considered herself a realist. Not a pessimist, exactly, but fully aware of how often things could go wrong. Tomas, though…he’d been the dreamer, the idealist, seeing silver linings where Val only saw clouds, giving her glimpses of shiny hope peeking through years of gloom and doom. No wonder she’d fallen in love with him. And consequently, why, every time he left, she’d steeled herself against the possibility that he might not come home. Especially considering his particular job. High-risk didn’t even begin to cover it.
But little girls shouldn’t have to worry about such things, or live in fear about what might happen. All she’d wanted – which Tomas knew – was to make a safe, secure life for her children. That her sweet, gentle husband had gone behind her back, undermining everything she’d fought so hard for—
“Mama? What’s wrong?”
How about everything?
“I…I didn’t know. About what Daddy said.”
She smiled – tightly – before holding out her arms. Josie clumsily slid off the sofa to climb on Val’s lap, where Val wrapped her up tight to lay her head in her daughter’s springy hair, struggling to find the peace she’d once let herself believe was finally hers.
“I’m surprised, that’s all.”
“That Daddy didn’t tell you?”
Josie picked at the little knotted bracelet encircling Val’s right wrist, the one Tomas had given her when they first started going together, more than a dozen years ago now. It was grimy and frayed and borderline disgusting and Val would never take it off.
“Daddy made me promise not to say anything. He said it was our secret. But that he wanted me to know it’d be okay.” She leaned back to meet Val’s eyes. “With Levi.”
Yeah, well, somehow Val doubted that. For a boatload of reasons so knotted up in her head she doubted she’d ever straighten them out.
But she certainly didn’t need to drag her little girl into the maelstrom of emotions Levi’s appearance had provoked. However…she supposed she might as well let the man fix her porch, since those rotting floorboards gave her the willies, too, and it wasn’t like she could replace them herself. And the nearby ski resort had apparently hired every contractor, carpenter and handyman in a hundred-mile radius for a massive, and long-overdue, renovation.
So. A job, she could give him. Anything else, though—
Holding her daughter even more tightly, Val reminded herself, again, to be grateful for what she still had – her beautiful daughters, Tommy’s doting parents, a roof over their heads, even if it wasn’t exactly hers. More than she ever thought she’d have, once upon a time.
And damned if she was about to Levi Talbot screw that up.
* * *
Levi slammed shut the gate to his old pick-up, piled high what he hoped was enough lumber to fix Val’s porch. Yeah, he should’ve taken measurements, but that would’ve meant hanging around, that last “Why?” of hers buzzing around inside his head like a ticked-off bee. Not that it still didn’t. But yesterday, with nothing separating him and Val but a few feet of hot resentment, he couldn’t deal with the question and her eyes, both. Those eyes – they were surreal, a pale blue like pond ice reflecting the sky. Cold as that ice, too.
At least she hadn’t told him to go to hell, he thought as he headed out of the Lowe’s parking lot. Not with her mouth, anyway. He only wished Tomas had been a little clearer about what he’d meant by “Take care of them, bro.”
He turned off the main road leading to the ski resort onto the dinkier one that went on to Whispering Pines. At this altitude, early mornings were chilly even in May. Would’ve been a peaceful drive from Taos, too, if it hadn’t been for the hard rock music pulsing through the cab, his head, driving out any and all wayward thoughts. Same music he’d listen to in the Sandbox, and for the same reason – to drown out that bizarre blend of boredom and constant anxiety nobody ever admitted to. At least not out loud.
He’d thought he’d known what he was getting into, that he was prepared, only to soon discover nobody and nothing could prepare you for reality. That reality, anyway. But he’d made a commitment, and he’d kept it. One of the few things he was apparently good at. God knew he’d done more than his fair share of dumbassed stuff growing up, but he’d never, not once, gone back on his word. And damned if he was gonna start now.
Levi tapped the steering wheel in time to the beat as the road meandered through patches of ranchland, the occasional spurt of forest, back-dropped by the mountains that provided Whispering Pines, and other puny little northern New Mexico towns like it, both spring runoff and something resembling a viable economy. Differences were subtle – a new fence here, a fresh coat of paint on a house there. He should’ve found the continuity comforting. Instead, the sameness bugged him. Same way everybody expected him to somehow fit right back in, like he was the same goofy twenty-two-year old who’d joined up six years ago. Not that he knew for sure yet who he was, but for sure that clueless kid wasn’t it.
The village was still half asleep, the tourist traps and art galleries and chichi restaurants on Main Street not yet ready to welcome the resort patrons curious enough to come down the mountain to investigate “real” New Mexico. Almost silently, the truck navigated the gentle roller coaster that was the town’s main drag, past the sheriff’s office and the elementary/middle school, the 7-Eleven and the Chevron station, the corner anchored by one bank and three churches. Rosa Munoz was out in front of the Catholic church, clipping lilacs. Like she’d been doing for as long as Levi could remember. Wearing the same sweater, too, from what Levi could tell.
Long before he reached the house, he spotted Val standing on the porch in a hoodie and jeans, clutching a mug in her hands. Like maybe she was waiting for him, although common sense told him that was dumb. He backed into the driveway, the top layer of cement eroded worse than the street in front of it. The dog – a good sized hound, he now saw – bounded up when he opened the door, baying loud enough to cause an avalanche. Still seated behind the wheel, Levi glanced down at the dog, then over to Val.
“You mind calling him off?”
“Don’t worry, he doesn’t bite. Hasn’t yet, anyway.”
Shaking his head, Levi got out, pushed past the still barking dog and headed up the driveway…straight into Val’s frown. Which he ignored. By now the damn dog was jumping around, occasionally shoving his cold nose into Levi’s hand. “Uh…if you got him as a guard dog, you might want to see about getting your money back.”
“I didn’t get him at all. Tommy brought him home one day, from some rescue place near the base. Scrawniest puppy I’d ever seen.” Levi looked up. The frown was still there, but her eyes didn’t seem quite as icy as before. “I didn’t have the heart to say no. To him or the dog.”
Levi looked back at the beast. Who’d planted his butt on the rough ground and was waving one paw at him, like he wanted to shake. Levi obliged. “What’s his name?”
“Because Early Warning System would’ve been too obvious.”
Val’s mouth might’ve twitched. “Not to mention too hard for a toddler to say.” Then she clamped her mouth shut, like regretting her humorous slip.
“Where are the girls?”
“With their grandmother. Connie and Pete live closer to the school, and she takes care of the baby while I’m at the diner—”
“Annie’s Place. Part time.”
“I’m doing whatever it takes to not go crazy. And we need to get a few things straight.”
A tremor shot up his spine as he propped one booted foot on the bottom step. “Which would be?”
Val’s cheeks went pink. He guessed not from the chill in the air. “This is strictly a business arrangement. Why you’re here is…immaterial. As you duly noted yesterday, the house needs a lot of work. Work I can’t do.”
Levi decided to put the why-he-was-here comment on hold for a moment. “Because you weigh less than the dog?”
She smirked. “Because I don’t know bupkiss about fixing up houses. And I gather you do.”
“Enough. Although if you’ve got serious electrical or plumbing issues, you’ll need to call in a pro. I can change out fixtures and sh—stuff, but anything more than that—”
“Got it. But I’m hiring you. Meaning I expect to be given a bill for your work—”
“Not gonna happen.”
“Then you’re right. It isn’t.”
“You don’t mean that.”
A moment’s hesitation preceded, “Yeah. I do. And yes, I know what I just said—”
Levi held up one hand, cutting off the conversation before it got even more stupid than it already was. He remembered Tommy’s mentioning Val’s stubbornness from time to time. His friend found it amusing, probably because he was crazy in love with the girl. Right now, Levi was more inclined toward annoyance. Pushing back his denim jacket to cram his hands into his front pockets, he frowned.
“You really hate me that much?”
Judging from her wide eyes, he’d shocked her. Good. Took a moment before she apparently found her voice. “What I do or don’t feel about you has nothing to do with it. But when there aren’t clear-cut expectations, things can get…weird.”
“Agreed. Except since I doubt either of us would let it, not an issue. Besides…”
Damn. He could almost hear Tomas whispering in his ear, Dude – you gotta be upfront with her.
“Okay…when you asked ‘why’ yesterday, the reason I didn’t answer wasn’t because I didn’t have an answer. It was because…I couldn’t find the words. Any that sounded right, at least—”
“You’re here because Tommy asked you to keep an eye on me and the girls.”
Levi started. “He told you?”
“No. Josie did. Yesterday, after you left.”
“Yeah. Still haven’t wrapped my head around the fact that he said something to our kid, but not me. So I already know why you’re here—”
“Because I made a promise, yeah. And I know you didn’t like me, or trust me, or whatever, so this is every bit as awkward and uncomfortable for me as it is you. Except the longer I think about it, the more I realize none of that matters. Because what matters is making sure my best friend’s kids aren’t living someplace that’s gonna fall down around their ears. That here’s something I can do to maybe make things better for somebody, to honor the one person who saw through my BS when we were kids, more than even my parents, my brothers. This is about…”
He felt his throat work. “About my debt to my best friend. One I fully intend to make good on. So it might make things a little easier if you’d get on board with that. Now. You want to pay for materials, I won’t object. But my labor…it’s my gift, okay? Because this is about what Tommy wanted. Not you, not me – Tommy. So deal.”
That got a few more moments of the staring thing before Val released a short, humorless laugh. “Wow. Guess you found your words.”
“Yeah, well, don’t get used to it, I just used up at least three months’ worth. So are we good?”
Another pause preceded, “Except what are you supposed to live on—?”
“Never mind about that. But here…” He dug the rumpled Lowe’s receipt out of his pocket, handed it over. What he kept to himself, though – for the moment, anyway – was that he knew how much the family had set aside for repairs, because he’d asked Pete Lopez the night before. Not nearly enough, if his hunch was correct about the extent of the work needed. Especially if she ended up having to call in pros. “Also,” he said as she looked it over, “you don’t need to stick around. I brought my own lunch. And I’ll make do with the woods over there when nature calls.” Her eyes shot to his; he shrugged. “I’m used to making do.”
Shaking her head, she grabbed her purse off a table on the porch, stuffed the receipt inside. “The house is open, feel free to use the facilities—”
“You’re very trusting.”
“Don’t read too much into it, there’s absolutely nothing worth stealing. Unless you have a thing for Disney princesses. In which case, knock yourself out. I’ll be back around three-thirty, after I pick up the girls. The dog can stay out front as long as his water dish is filled, but don’t let him out back, since there’s no fence. And no, I don’t get it, either, why he won’t leave the front yard but heeds the call of the wild the minute he hits the back deck.”
Levi swallowed his smile. “Got it.”
She started down the steps, only to turn around before she reached her car, a dinged-up Toyota RAV with a small American flag hanging limply from the antenna. “If you do a crap job on my porch? There will be hell to pay.”
With a nod, she finished the short walk to her car, stripping out of the hoodie before getting in. And Levi couldn’t help noticing how the sunlight kissed her hair, her slender shoulders…the shoulders, he knew, that had borne far more burdens than they should have. Not only recently, but before, when they were still in school and he’d hear the sniggering. Like it was somehow Val’s fault her mother was the way she was, that her father had left them high and dry when she was a little kid.
No, he thought as she backed out of the drive, took off, he didn’t imagine trusting had ever come easy to Valerie Oswald. With damn good reason. By comparison he and Tomas had led charmed lives, with parents who loved them, were there for them, even if Levi’s had sometimes been a little more there than he might’ve liked. But it hadn’t been like that for Val, who must’ve figured it was simply easier to keep to herself than to either live a lie or apologize for her mother. Which naturally led everyone to think she was either stuck-up or weird.
Almost everyone, anyway, Levi thought as he yanked a large toolbox out of the truck, grabbed a crowbar to start prying up the rotten floorboards. So how could the girl who’d worked so hard to overcome her past not look at Levi without being reminded of what she’d lost?
Clearly, Tommy hadn’t thought that part of his plan through.
With a grunt, he wrenched up the first board and tossed it out into the yard, chuckling when the dumb dog first scampered back, then growled at the board like it was a snake.
Which pretty much said it all, didn’t it?
Copyright 2016, Karen Templeton-Berger. Reprinted with permission from Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.