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Heart of a Hero

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Heart of a Hero

ANNE MARIE WINSTON
LORETH ANNE WHITE
LYN STONE

www.millsandboon.co.uk

THE SOLDIER’S
SEDUCTION

ANNE MARIE WINSTON

About the Author

RITA® Award finalist and bestselling author
ANNE MARIE WINSTON
loves babies she can give back when they cry, animals in all shapes and sizes and just about anything that blooms. When she’s not writing, she’s managing a house full of animals and teenagers, reading anything she can find and trying not to eat chocolate. She will dance at the slightest provocation and weeds her garden when she can’t see the sun for the weeds any more. You can learn more about Anne Marie’s novels by visiting her website at www.annemariewinston.com

Dedicated to the memory of those animals who
perished when they were left behind during
Hurricane Katrina and with warmest thanks
to every rescuer and animal lover who responded
and saved so many others.

One

I
t wasn’t what he’d expected.

Wade brought the rental car to a halt along the curb and simply absorbed the sight of the modest, cozy home nestled in the small-town neighborhood. Phoebe’s home. Phoebe’s neighborhood.

He cut the ignition and eased himself from the car, taking in the pretty autumn wreath on the front door, the carved pumpkin on the second of the brick steps leading to the porch, the fall flowers in bright shades of rust, burgundy and gold that brightened up the bare spaces in front of the small bushes along the foundation.

He’d assumed she would live in an apartment. He didn’t really know why he’d thought that, but every time he’d pictured Phoebe since he’d learned she had moved away, he’d imagined her living in an apartment or a small condo. Nothing so…permanent, as this house appeared to be.

He’d gotten quite a shock when he’d finally returned home, eagerly anticipating his first sight of her—only to learn that she’d left California months earlier. He didn’t even want to think about the bleak misery that had swept through him, the letdown that had been so overwhelming that he’d just wanted to sit down and cry.

Not that he ever would. Soldiers didn’t cry. Especially soldiers who had been decorated all to hell and back.

Living at home had been difficult. Only two short months before he’d been injured, he’d gone home on leave for his mother’s funeral. While he was recuperating, his father made valiant attempts to keep things as normal around the house as possible. But without his mother, there was a big hole nothing could disguise.

He made casual inquiries about where Phoebe had gone, but no one seemed to know. By the time he was home for a month, he was desperate enough to start digging. The secretary of her high
school graduating class had no forwarding address. A light Internet search turned up nothing. He finally thought to call Berkeley, the university she’d attended, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give him any information.

He was about ready to consider hiring a private investigator when he thought of calling June, the only girl other than Phoebe’s twin sister Melanie who he could really remember Phoebe hanging around with in high school. Geeky little June with her thick glasses and straight
A
s. Someone Melanie wouldn’t have been caught dead hanging out with, but as he recalled, a genuinely sweet kid.

They really had seemed like kids to his four-years-older eyes back then. But by the time the twins had graduated from high school, those years had no longer seemed to be of much consequence.

Getting in touch with Phoebe’s old friend was a stroke of luck. June had gotten a Christmas card from Phoebe four months after she’d moved. And God bless her, she’d kept the address.

That address had been quite a shock. She’d gone from California clear across the country to a small town in rural New York state.

Ironically, it was a familiar area. Phoebe’s new home was less than an hour from West Point, where he’d spent four long years in a gray uniform
chafing for graduation day, when he could finally become a real soldier.

He wouldn’t have been so impatient for those days to end if he’d known what lay ahead of him.

He climbed the small set of steps carefully. His doctors were sure he’d make a full recovery—full enough for civilian life, anyway. But the long flight from San Diego to JFK had been more taxing than he’d anticipated. He probably should have gotten a room for the night, looked up Phoebe tomorrow when he was rested.

But he hadn’t been able to make himself wait a moment longer.

He knocked on the wooden front door, eyeing the wavy glass diamond pane in the door’s upper portion. Although it was designed to obscure a good view of the home’s occupants, he might be able to see someone coming toward the door. But after a few moments and two more knocks, nobody showed. Phoebe wasn’t home.

Disappointment swamped him. He leaned his head against the door frame, completely spent. He’d counted on seeing her so badly. But…he glanced at his watch. He hadn’t even considered the time. It was barely four o’clock.

The last time he’d seen her, she was a year out of college with a degree in elementary education,
and she’d been teaching first grade. If she still was a teacher, she might soon be getting home. She probably worked, he decided as relief seeped through him.

If she wasn’t married, he thought, trying to encourage himself, it stood to reason she’d need income. And June hadn’t heard anything about a husband. If she had married, she hadn’t taken his name, which didn’t really fit with the quiet, traditional girl he’d known so well. And he knew she hadn’t taken anyone’s name because he’d checked the local phone book and found her there: P. Merriman.

Fine. He’d wait. He turned and started for his car, but a porch swing piled with pillows caught his attention. He’d just sit there and wait for her.

If she’d been married, he wouldn’t be here, he assured himself. If she’d been married, he would have left her alone, wouldn’t have attempted to contact her again in this lifetime.

But he was pretty sure she wasn’t.

And despite the good reasons he had for staying away from Phoebe Merriman, despite the fact that he’d behaved like a jerk the last time they’d been together, he’d never been able to forget her. Never been able to convince himself that being with her had been a mistake. He’d thought of little else
during his long months of recuperation and therapy. He’d nearly reached out to her then, but some part of him had shied away from a phone call or an e-mail.

He wanted to see her in person when he asked her if there was any chance she’d let him into her life again. Sighing, he dragged one of the pillows up and leaned his head against it. If only things hadn’t gotten so screwed up at the end.

It had been bad enough that Phoebe’s twin Melanie had died because of him. Indirectly, maybe, but it still had been his fault.

He’d compounded it in the biggest damn way possible when he’d made love to Phoebe after the funeral. And then he’d run.

Phoebe Merriman jumped when the mobile phone in her minivan began to play the jazzy tune she’d programmed into it. That phone hardly ever rang. The only reason she had it, really, was so that Bridget’s babysitter could always reach her in case of an emergency.

Alarmed, she punched the button to take the call. A quick glance at the display had the dread in her stomach lurching uncomfortably. Phoebe had good reason to fear unexpected phone calls. And just as she’d feared, it was her home number. “Hello?”

“Phoebe?” The babysitter, Angie, sounded breathless.

“Angie. What’s wrong?”

“There’s a man sitting on the front porch. In the swing.”

The news was almost anticlimactic, considering that she’d been fearing a high fever, blood or broken bones.

“Sitting? And what else?”

“Nothing else.” Phoebe realized Angie wasn’t breathless; she was whispering. “He came to the door but I didn’t answer, so he sat down on the swing and I thought I’d better call you.” Her voice quavered a little.

Phoebe remembered how young her sitter was, newly graduated from high school and still living with her parents on the next street over, taking evening classes at a local community college. Phoebe had met Angie’s mother in her Sunday-school class and had felt lucky to find Angie.

“You did exactly right,” she assured the younger woman. “If all he’s doing is sitting there, just stay inside with the doors closed. I’m only a few blocks from home.”

She pulled into her driveway a few minutes later, the cell phone’s line still open. There was a gray sedan with a rental tag parked in front of her
house. Maybe it belonged to whoever was waiting on her front porch.

“Okay, Angie,” she said. “I’m home. You stay right where you are until I come inside.”

She took a deep breath. Should she call the police? Common sense told her whoever was waiting on her porch probably wasn’t a criminal. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be here in the middle of the day, unconcerned about the neighbors taking down his license plate or identifying him. She positioned her keys between her fingers with one key thrust outward, as she’d learned in the self-defense class she’d taken when she’d first started college. Then she pivoted on her heel and headed up her front walk.

She started up the porch steps, unable to see the swing because of the trellis of roses blooming across the front of the porch. She knew from experience that a person sitting there on the swing could see out much more easily than anyone could see in.

As she reached the porch, a very large man came into view. Adrenaline rushed through her as he began to rise from the swing. She angled her body to confront him.

“What are—
Wade!”

As the man’s identity registered, a wave of shock slammed into her. It couldn’t be.

Wade was dead.

Her knees felt as if they might buckle and she groped for the railing behind her. The keys fell to the floor with a loud jangle. “You—you’re Wade.” An inane statement. Of course it was Wade.

He was smiling but his eyes were watchful as he took a step forward. “Yeah. Hi, Phoebe.”

“B-b-but…”

His smile faded as she took a step backward. One eyebrow rose in a quirk as familiar to her as her own smile in the mirror. That quizzical expression had been only one of the things she’d loved about Wade Donnelly. “But what?” he asked quietly.

“I thought you were dead!” She blurted out the words as her legs gave way and she sank to the top step, dropping her head onto her knees as incredulity warred with a strong desire to cry hysterically.

Footsteps rang out as Wade crossed the porch and then the boards of the top step depressed as he sat down beside her. One large hand touched her back. “My God,” she said, the words muffled. “You really are here, aren’t you?”

“I’m really here.” It was definitely Wade, his distinctly masculine tone one she would recognize anywhere. He touched her back again, just one small uncertain touch, and she had to fight the urge to throw herself into his arms.

He never really belonged to me,
she reminded herself.

“I’m sorry it’s such a shock.” His voice was quiet and deep and rang with sincerity. “I
was
presumed to be dead for a couple of days until I could get back to my unit. But that was months ago.”

“How long have you been home?” He’d been deployed right after Melanie’s funeral. The memory brought back others she’d tried to forget, as well, and she focused on his answer, trying to ignore the past.

“About five weeks. I’ve been trying to find you.” He hesitated for a moment. “June gave me your address and she knew I survived. I assumed she—or someone back home—had told you.”

“No.” She shook her head without lifting it. She’d stopped reading the news from home the day she’d read his obituary. And though she’d sent June a Christmas card this year, they hadn’t exchanged more than signatures since she’d moved.

Silence fell. She sensed that he didn’t know what to say any more than she did—

Bridget!
Shocked that she could have forgotten her own child for a moment—particularly this moment—Phoebe leaped to her feet, ignoring Wade’s startled exclamation. “Just—ah, just let me put my things inside,” she said. “Then we can talk.”

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