Chapter One

Aspen “Blade” Carlisle stared at his phone impatiently. It was ridiculous how much he was looking forward to Wendy calling him. Yeah, he could always call her, but he didn’t know what her plans were and didn’t want to interrupt anything.

He’d met her a couple of months ago when she’d cold-called him, trying to sell him a life insurance policy. He hadn’t needed one, but he’d been surprised by how much he’d enjoyed their brief banter. He’d invited her to call him back, and she had.

They’d progressed from Wendy calling him a couple times a week to exchanging cell phone numbers. She still sometimes called him when she was working, but they also texted each other, and now spoke when she wasn’t working at her telemarketing job.

Blade liked just about everything about Wendy that he’d learned so far.

When she’d asked about his job, and he’d been honest and said he couldn’t really talk much about it, she hadn’t pried.

He admired the way she’d stepped in to raise her brother when her parents had died in a nasty car wreck. Jack had been only six when their mom and dad had been killed. Blade didn’t know exactly how old the boy was now, just that he was a teenager, but Wendy couldn’t have been much over legal age herself when she’d suddenly become responsible for her little brother.

Blade liked how Wendy always asked about his day and how he was doing. He’d dated a couple of women who were only interested in talking about themselves, or what was happening in their own lives. They’d been self-absorbed and it had turned him off in a big way. Wendy went out of her way to ask about his friends, how he was feeling, if he’d had a good day, and she didn’t ever seem bored with whatever he wanted to talk about.

He respected how passionate she was about her job as an aide at the assisted-living complex where she worked. At times, she was a bit self-recriminating that she wasn’t doing more, that she wasn’t a nurse, but most of the time she seemed to truly like her work, and she talked about the older men and women who lived at the facility as if they were pseudo grandparents.

The one thing that bothered Blade was that he could tell Wendy wasn’t all that confident in herself. She was constantly deflecting any compliments and went out of her way to turn conversation away from herself and her brother onto him.

They hadn’t exchanged photos of each other. It hadn’t come up, and Blade was enjoying getting to know Wendy without the pressure of dating. But the more he got to know her, the more curious he got, and the more he wanted to see if they clicked in person as well as they clicked on the phone. One night, they had briefly talked about what they looked like, and after he’d given her the basics on himself, all she’d said about herself was that she was “average height, average weight, and had average brown hair.” He’d complained that he wanted to know more, but she’d changed the subject.

His cell phone rang then, the shrill sound echoing throughout the living area of his condo. Blade’s sister, Casey, had helped him pick the three-level condo months ago, and he still hadn’t fully furnished it yet. It was too big, but he couldn’t resist purchasing and renovating it. There were no rugs covering the beautiful dark hardwood floors, and a couch and a TV was all he had in the large open living space. He didn’t need anything more and hadn’t bothered trying to make it look homey.

Casey complained that it looked like a bachelor pad, and Blade had retorted that’s because it was a bachelor pad. His sister had rolled her eyes at him, but hadn’t brought it up again.

“Hey, Wen,” Blade said after making sure it was Wendy calling and not some other random telemarketer.

“Hi, Aspen. This an okay time to call?”

He smiled. He loved how she called him by his given name instead of his nickname. The first time they’d talked, he’d told her his name and she’d said that she loved how unique it was. He also really appreciated that she made sure she wasn’t interrupting or bothering him whenever she called. Blade reassured her. “Of course. Anytime you want to call is fine with me. Besides, I’ve told you before, if I can’t talk, I won’t answer the phone.”

“I know, I just wanted to make sure. How was your day?”

Blade smiled. There she went again, asking about him. “It was good. Me and my friends had PT this morning, some paperwork we had to do, two briefings to attend, then I went to the gun range. I finished dinner a bit ago, and now I’m sitting on my couch talking to you.”

“Sounds like a busy day,” Wendy observed.

“Yup. What about you? How was your day? How’s Mister Clark doing?”

She sighed and Blade tensed. She’d talked about the ninety-one-year-old resident of the assisted-living facility the other day. She’d been concerned about him, as his health had been going downhill recently. She’d been appalled that his two children had been notified but hadn’t bothered to come see him, even though they lived not too far away up in Fort Worth.

“He passed away today,” Wendy said quietly, her normally perky voice subdued and sad.

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” Blade told her. He wished he could take her in his arms and comfort her.

“It’s okay,” Wendy told him. “It was time. He didn’t know who anyone was anymore, and he even told me a couple days ago that he was ready to go. He was amazing, Aspen. I wish you could’ve met him. He fought in World War II, and the stories he told about some of the things he did over there were amazing.”

“I wish I could’ve met him too.” And he did. Blade used to take the time to volunteer at some of the veterans’ homes, but he hadn’t done it in a while. He made a mental note to start doing that again soon.

“I went to work early this morning because I had a bad feeling about him. The night nurse told me that she didn’t think he had very much time left. His stupid kids still hadn’t bothered to come down, even though I made a point to call them both yesterday and let them know that it was only a matter of time before their father died. I sat by his bed holding his hand, and didn’t think he knew I was there, but about an hour later he opened his eyes. He thought I was his wife—she died ten years ago—and he started recounting the most beautiful memories of her.

“He talked about their honeymoon and how lucky he thought he was that she’d married him. He reminisced about the times their children were born and how happy he’d been. He even brought up a memory of the two of them on the rooftop of an apartment in Paris, and how they watched the lights of the Eiffel Tower twinkle as they made love.”

Blade could feel the pain in her voice, as well as the sadness.

“I just let him talk. Didn’t tell him that I wasn’t his love. After a while, he stopped talking and we just sat there in silence. Eventually, his breathing slowed and he died. It was beautiful and sad at the same time, Aspen. I never wanted to let go of his hand. I wanted him to wake up and tell me more stories. Talk to me about how proud he was to serve his country. But eventually I had to get on with my work.”

“Did his kids ever show up?” Blade asked.

“Yeah,” Wendy said bitterly. “About five hours later. When they were told that he’d passed, I heard his son bitching that he’d driven all the way down from Fort Worth for nothing. His daughter merely looked at her watch, then told her brother she was emailing her lawyer to see about getting his will executed. It was awful. I was going to tell them the beautiful stories Mister Clark had told me about his wife, but after hearing how uncaring they were, I decided to keep those memories to myself.”

“I’m glad you were there for him,” Blade told her.

“Me too.”

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Not really,” Wendy said. “I mean, I see people die all the time. It’s kind of part of the job of working at an assisted-living facility. But for some reason, Mister Clark really got to me.”

“It’s because you’re a good person,” Blade said. “And you could no more ignore an old man who just wanted some peace before he passed than you could a starving dog on the street.”

She was silent for a while after he’d spoken, and Blade had the momentary thought that maybe he’d gone too far. Yeah, they’d been talking for a couple of months, and yeah, they’d gotten past the bullshit answers to the “how was your day” questions, but he hadn’t been quite so blatant about his admiration of her before.

“You’re right,” Wendy told him. “But it still hurts.”

“You wouldn’t be the person you are if it didn’t. You’re compassionate, hardworking, honest, and a little too easygoing sometimes. I would’ve told his kids off if I was there.”

She chuckled. “I could totally see you doing that. But it wouldn’t have brought Mister Clark back, and it wouldn’t change the fact that his kids didn’t appreciate him. All it would’ve done is make things awkward. I’d give anything to have my dad back,” Wendy said softly. “He wasn’t always the best father, he worked too hard and wasn’t home a lot, but he loved me and Jack.”

“Can you talk about what happened to your folks?” Blade hadn’t asked before. He knew her parents had been killed when she was a teenager, but that was about it. He hadn’t really felt they were in a place in their friendship where it was appropriate. But it seemed like she needed to talk about them tonight.

She sighed, and once again Blade wished he was sitting next to her and could comfort her in person.

“My dad worked in IT and was gone a lot. He traveled most weeks from Monday through Thursday. He’d go to companies and help them set up and customize different software packages. It was a Saturday, and Mom was feeling down. Dad took her out on a date. I was babysitting Jack, and they were hit by a drunk driver.”

“Jesus, Wen. That’s awful.”

“I read the police report and apparently when the cops got there, they found my parents holding hands in the wreckage of their car. They were both dead, but the coroner’s report said my dad survived the initial impact. My mom died right away. He passed away not too much later after the paramedics arrived. He’d latched onto my mom’s hand and refused to let go.”

Blade didn’t know what to say. Literally, he opened his mouth and nothing came out. He couldn’t imagine anything worse.

But Wendy, being Wendy, moved past the awkward moment for him as if what she’d just said hadn’t rocked him.

“I’ve tried to live my life in a way that would make my parents proud of me. I’ve mis-stepped along the way, but I’ve done my best to make sure Jack never forgets how wonderful our parents were.”

“Where’s your brother now?” Blade asked, wanting to make sure Wendy wasn’t alone after her horrible day.

“He’s in his room. I tried to help him with his homework earlier, which was a joke because he’s way smarter than I’ll ever be. Then we watched TV for a while, and now he’s on the phone with one of his friends.”

“Did you tell him that you had a bad day?” Blade asked.

“No.”

“Why not? I’m sure he would’ve tried to cheer you up.”

“Because I don’t want to bring him down. He had a tough few years in middle school. He was bullied, but thank God, he didn’t turn to drugs or give up or anything. Now he’s loving high school. Being a sophomore is so much better for him than being a freshman was.”

“Wen, you shouldn’t keep things to yourself,” Blade lectured. “He’s your brother, I’m sure he’d want to know when you’re having a tough time.”

“I didn’t keep my crappy day to myself,” she said quietly. “I told you.”

Blade blinked and stared at the muted TV for a beat. There was a commercial on with a half-dressed woman hawking some lotion, but Blade didn’t give a crap about anything other than Wendy’s words at that moment.

“So you did,” he said after a while. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For trusting me with your real feelings. You have no idea how much I appreciate that.”

“So, enough about me,” Wendy said, her embarrassment easy to hear in her tone. “What do you usually do for PT?”

Blade allowed the change in conversation. It went back to being light and somewhat superficial, but he knew that something had changed, at least for him. She’d opened up. Told him some extremely emotional and personal things about herself. Of course, he had a million questions about what she didn’t say.

Why was Jack bullied? What happened to her and her brother after their parents died? Why did she always put herself down…like the comment about her not being as smart as her brother?

Blade had been frustrated before when he could tell she was holding back…as if she had some deep dark secret. And he believed there was something that made her as cautious as she was. However, telling him about her parents, and about Mister Clark, was a good first step forward.

But what was it a first step toward?

And with a clarity that hit him like a bullet piercing the target he’d shot at earlier in the day, he realized that her trusting him, opening up to him, was the first step toward making their friendship more than a “phone” one. More than just casual friends.

He wanted to meet her.

Wanted to see her face-to-face as she asked about his day.

Wanted to know if her voice was as soothing to him in person as it was over the phone.

“I want to meet you,” Blade blurted, interrupting whatever it was that she was saying.

There was silence on the phone for a beat before she asked, “Why?”

“Why?” Blade echoed. “Because I like you. Because you make me laugh. Because I’m interested in you.”

“You’re interested in me?”

Blade smiled. She was cute when she was flustered. “Yeah, Wen. I am. We’ve been talking for two months. I think you like me, at least a little, otherwise you wouldn’t keep talking to me. Let’s meet.”

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea,” Wendy finally said.

“Why?” It was his turn to question her now.

“Because I’m really busy, and you are too. And we don’t really know each other. I mean, I could be a serial killer or something. Haven’t you watched any of those killer shows on TV? Like Snapped or Deadly Women? I could be luring you into my web to hurt you.”

“Are you?”

“That’s beside the point,” she huffed.

Blade’s smile grew. “Actually, I think that’s exactly the point.”

“I’m just not sure it’s a good idea,” she semi-repeated. “I…I’m not all that pretty.”

“Wendy,” Blade reprimanded. “I like you for who you are, not because of what you look like. But I have a feeling that you’re way underestimating yourself. You do that a lot. If it makes you feel better, we can text each other pictures of ourselves first. Then if you think I’m a troll, you can make up some excuse not to meet me.”

“I don’t want to exchange pictures. And you’re not a troll,” she huffed.

“How do you know? I could have a hunchback and my eyes could be uneven and squinty, and maybe I have resting bitch face all the time,” he teased.

Wendy giggled. “Whatever.”

“Meet with me,” Blade said. “As a friend. With no pressure for anything more for now. I can’t imagine I’d like you any less than I do right now. And I have a feeling seeing you face-to-face will only make our friendship grow.”

“I’m not sure…” Wendy hedged.

“This weekend,” Blade went on quickly. “Friday night, after your shift at the assisted-living facility. You already said earlier this week that you’re not working that night for the telemarketing company. You can come straight from work and we’ll have an informal dinner somewhere. What about that new trendy sports bar in downtown Temple?”

He held his breath as Wendy thought about his question.

“I like you, Aspen. A lot. And I’m afraid if we meet, it’ll change our relationship.”

“It won’t.”

“You can’t guarantee that,” she argued.

“Wendy, the only way our relationship will change is if we let it. We’re still gonna talk all the time. You’re still going to call me and pretend to try to sell me something so you can hear a friendly voice when you’re at your telemarketing job. I’m still gonna wait with bated breath for you to call when you say you’re gonna call and laugh when you send me a funny joke via text. The way I see it, things can only get better from here on out. Yeah, our relationship might change, and honestly, right now I’m hoping it does change. I feel closer to you than I’ve felt to any woman in a hell of a long time. I see that as a good thing. You know what I was thinking tonight before you called?”

“What?” Wendy asked.

“That I wished I was waiting for you to show up at my door instead of waiting for you to call. I’d love to hang out with you. Watch a movie. Talk. Eat. I’m comfortable with you, and there aren’t a lot of women I can say that about. There’s something about you that makes me put down my guard.”

“I feel the same way,” Wendy said quietly. “But I’m nervous.”

“About what? Not about me?” Blade asked.

“Yes and no.”

“I’d never hurt you, Wen. Never.”

“It’s not that,” she said immediately.

“Then what?”

“It’s just…”

Blade heard her take a deep breath before continuing.

“There are things you don’t know about me. About what I’ve done in the past. Things I’ve never told anyone.”

Blade clenched his teeth and felt his free hand fisting. “Did someone hurt you?”

“What? No.”

“Stalk you? Do you have an ex that won’t leave you alone?”

“Aspen, no, it’s nothing like that.”

Blade breathed a sigh of relief. “Whatever it is, it’ll be okay.”

She chuckled softly. “That’s so like you.”

When she didn’t elaborate, Blade asked, “What is?”

“You’re always so positive. So worried about others. It’s not normal…but I like it.”

“If more people looked on the bright side of things, maybe there’d be less anxiety, depression, and general grouchiness in the world.”

“True,” she responded.

“So?” Blade asked. “Are we on for Friday?”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay then.”

She didn’t sound very excited about the prospect, and suddenly Blade was disappointed. “You know what? If you really don’t want to, it’s okay. I don’t want to push you into anything you don’t want to do. I know I’m excited about the prospect of meeting you, but if this is something you’re going to dread, or something that you really, really don’t want to do, then let’s not do it.”

“I want to,” Wendy immediately contradicted. “As I said, I’m just nervous about it. You’re the first person in a very long time I’ve felt as if I have a true connection with, and I don’t want to screw it up. The last thing I want to do is let you down. It’ll kill me if we meet and you decide I’m not who you thought I’d be, or if you don’t want me calling you anymore.”

“Your calls are the highlight of my day, sweetheart,” Blade told her honestly. “Unless you get totally shit-faced and start dancing on the tables, you aren’t going to let me down, and I’m definitely going to want to keep talking to you afterward. Okay?”

“Okay. How will I know who you are? Maybe we should exchange pictures after all,” Wendy said in a perkier tone.

“I kinda like the idea of seeing you for the first time Friday night,” Blade said.

“So like a true blind date,” Wendy said with a little giggle. Then she sobered and quickly added, “Not that this is a date or anything, I just meant—”

“Oh, it’s a date, all right,” Blade interrupted. “And, yes, it’s truly a blind date. But so you’ll know it’s me, I’ll be wearing a pair of jeans, a black T-shirt, and I’ll bring you a bag of chocolate Kisses because I know how much you enjoy them.”

“Oh…you don’t have to do that,” she protested.

“I know, but I’m going to anyway,” Blade told her. “What will you be wearing, so I’ll know it’s you?”

“Um…I usually wear scrubs at the facility, but I’ll wear jeans on Friday instead. Um…jeez…you can’t ask me on Tuesday what I’m going to wear Friday,” she teased. “I’m a woman. I’ll have to take everything out of my closet, scrutinize it, and I’ll change my mind about half a dozen times.”

Blade chuckled. “Point taken. How about you just text me sometime before Friday night and let me know then.”

“I can do that.”

“Great. It’s a date then.”

“Aspen?”

“Yeah, darlin’?”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For being so amazing. For being easy to talk to. For not hanging up on me during that first call I made when I tried to sell you life insurance. Just…thanks.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Wendy. I’m just as thankful that you called me back that second time. And the third. And the fourth. That you trusted me enough to give me your cell number. And that you want to meet in person after all this time. I’m the one who should be thanking you. Oh, and I want to meet your brother sometime too. That is…if you think it’s okay.”

“He wants to meet you too.”

“You’ve told him about me?”

“Yeah, Aspen. He knows about you,” she said.

Blade swallowed hard. Wendy might be nervous to meet him, but he was glad she felt comfortable enough that she’d talked to her brother about him. “I’d like to know more about him…if you’re willing to share.”

“Of course. Friday?”

“Absolutely. I’ll be waiting for you in the bar area,” Blade told her. “Around five?”

“Five is perfect.”

“I’m going to let you go, Wen, but you should know something.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I haven’t dated anyone in years. This isn’t something I usually do. There’s something about you that I can’t resist and don’t want to resist. Friday is going to be the start of something between us. Unless we find that we can’t stand each other, which I can’t see happening, I want to be exclusive. I don’t want you dating anyone else.”

“I don’t want to see anyone else,” Wendy said quietly. “And between working two jobs and raising Jack, I haven’t dated much either.”

Blade couldn’t help but feel a sense of pleasure wash over him at her words. “Okay, sweetheart. I’m going to let you go. I’m looking forward to meeting you. To seeing you in person.”

“Me too.”

“Sleep well. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Blade hung up the phone and knew he had a goofy grin on his face, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to call Casey and tell her that he was finally going to meet the woman he couldn’t stop thinking about. He’d told his sister all about Wendy, and she’d been thrilled for him.

It could be because Casey was disgustingly happy with his teammate and friend, Beatle, but Blade knew it was more because she wanted him to be happy. He was close to his sister, and he knew if something, God forbid, had happened to their parents, both he and Casey would’ve done whatever was necessary to be there for each other.

Blade sat on the couch and stared at the TV for a long while before finally pushing to his feet and heading upstairs to his bedroom. He wanted to meet Wendy tonight. Or tomorrow, but knew she had to work. He also knew without a doubt the rest of the week was going to crawl by. He couldn’t wait until Friday.


 

New York Times Bestselling Author

Rescuing Wendy

Aspen “Blade” Carlisle is the last of his Delta Force team to find love…and he’s pretty bummed about that fact. Which might explain why he finds himself chatting up a telemarketer as if she’s a long-lost friend. But Wendy is surprisingly easy to talk to, so when they go from occasional calls during her work, to nightly conversations on their cells, it somehow feels right. So right, Blade eventually convinces the funny, sweet woman to meet him in person.

When their first face-to-face meeting gets high-jacked, Wendy Tucker is sure she and Aspen made a big mistake in taking their relationship to the next level. But the man is nothing if not persistent. Before long, Wendy’s allowing the handsome soldier to spend more time with her and Jack, the teen brother she’s raising, than anyone she’s ever dated. Though she knows there are limits to how close she can get to Aspen, no matter how much she likes him. Limits carefully constructed to protect Wendy and Jack from a past they’ve been running from for years.

But dating Blade means having an entire team of Deltas at her back. Which may come in handy not just with Wendy’s past…but also when her brother faces a current threat.