US Army Base, Africa
“Your deal. Nate?”
Four members of my squad, plus me, sat around an old card table on a Monday night. Three days a week when we were inside the wire, we played cards which was a respite from long days training, in meetings, at the range. . . life in an active combat zone. Some days were like Groundhog Day. Others, we were wishing for some monotony.
I looked at my cards. They were shit. Tossing them in, I folded and picked up my phone. It had become a bad habit lately, checking text messages. With a burner phone and data double VPN, I was able to text back to the states. Which passed the time—exchanging crude memes with some of my buddies back home, getting updates from my former partner about his new life in an old hometown.
It was from that town I waited for a text now. Though not from Lucas.
“You alright over there?” one of the guys asked.
“He met a girl,” another said. Let the ribbing commence. I ignored it until someone called her by name. Zoe was hard to miss. My head snapped up.
“How do you know her name?”
“Your phone, dude. It’s always out and buzzing with updates from Zoe girl.”
As the guys went round and round, I pushed back my seat.
“Uh oh. Looks like someone got a text.”
Ignoring them, I stared at my phone. It was, indeed, a message from Zoe. A question about what I’d been doing today. Done with cards, I made my way through my—how to describe our base, which was really more like a makeshift camp complete with generators and unreliable Wi-Fi—austere surroundings. It was dark now, but during the day all you could see was tan and camouflage. Dirt for dessert. Guys in Army green and brown, only the occasional workout clothes breaking up what was otherwise a very uniform setting.
It had been more than ten months, and I was ready to get the hell home. What I wouldn’t do for a slice of pizza or a big juicy cut of steak right about now.
My room, with enough privacy for some things and not enough for others, awaited. Sitting down on the bed, figuring enough time had gone by, I thought about how to answer her question.
“I can’t really talk about anything that would compromise OPSEC.” Then, realizing she wouldn’t know what that was, I added, “Operational security.”
A week ago, Lucas had given me Zoe’s number. When I was shot, he and his girlfriend Charlee had sent a care package. In there was a letter. Pink stationary. Cursive writing. Even hearts drawn around her name, as if Zoe were a teenage girl and not a woman of twenty-nine. She explained that her dad was in the Navy and loved getting actual letters, hence the old-school approach. And though she didn’t know me, Zoe wanted to send a “well wishes from back home” even though we were strangers.
Of course, the first thing I did was look her up. I might not have social media, but most people did. Including Zoe. And she was hotter than hell. As I scrolled through, the answer to “was she single” seemed to be answered. A guy in pics for nearly a year, then a move to New York working for Charlee’s dad at a lakeside resort, then no guy. Unless they were dating long-distance? There was no relationship status listed.
“Oh, sorry,” she texted back.
The woman was either one of the nicest I’d ever met or just really liked to apologize. She did it often.
“No apologies necessary. If you ask me something I can’t answer, I’ll just tell you.”
Shit. I’d forgotten to delay my message. Didn’t want to appear overly anxious. Thankfully, that didn’t seem to matter. Zoe was already writing back.
“Sounds good.” Then, “So it’s like ten o’clock over there now, right?”
“Yep, just got back from playing cards.”
“Ahh, fun. That’s cool you have stuff like that to do over there. In between fighting terrorists and all.”
And before I got a chance to respond. . . “OMG I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to give anything away.”
Chuckling to myself, I responded. “You didn’t. That’s no secret.”
She made me laugh at least five times a day.
At first, we’d messaged once. Then the second day, almost all morning. A week in, we’d gotten into the habit of texting quite a bit. For me, mostly before the day started and when it wound down. For Zoe, she jumped on when she could, and a certain rhythm to our communication had been established.
Then yesterday, the question.
“Curious about something but it’s. . . personal.”
“Send it,” I’d said to her.
“What’s the dating situation over there?”
“The dating situation or my dating situation?” I’d responded. There was a difference, and so the question had to be asked.
I waited what felt like hours for that response. And then, finally she texted. “Yours.”
“Ah, well. No girlfriend. If that’s what you’re asking.”
She didn’t follow that one up, so I dove in next. “How about you?”
And with that, the stage had been set. Whereas at first our messages were very innocuous, getting-to-know-each-other type stuff without really knowing where this was headed, since yesterday, our texts had taken on a flirty tone.
This was getting interesting, that was for certain.
“Speaking of secrets,” I texted now. “Tell me one about you.”
Either she didn’t want to answer, was momentarily distracted, or I’d pushed too hard. It was difficult getting to know someone over text. I envied Lucas, who had gone about finding a girlfriend the right way. Moving back home. Reconnecting with his ex. Falling in love with her, again. Though I personally didn’t think he had ever stopped loving Charlee. Ever since Lucas and I met, I’d heard her name way more often than I should have given that the woman was just a high school sweetheart. Now the two of them practically lived together, and Lucas had admitted he wanted to ask her to marry him but was just waiting to figure out how to make it perfect. He wanted to “think of something good,” which should be interesting, since I wouldn’t put Lucas and romantic grand gestures in the same sentence normally.
She was typing.
Those text bubbles taunted me morning, day, and night, especially when I could see her on there, knowing something was about to come through. Who said long-distance relationships were dull? Not that we were in a relationship. Yet.
“Okay.” Her text came through. “Here’s one. I like you. A lot.”
Bring. It. On.
Preorder book two in the Military on Main series, Bring It On, here.