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Chavon White checked her image in the full-length mirror propped against the wall of her shabby chic apartment. The faux-finished antique she’d picked up at a garage sale over the summer, then modified, framed a vision she didn’t often see.
With subtly applied makeup and a vintage black lace dress she’d snagged from the secondhand shop she lived above, she thought she might actually look…well, pretty. Normal, aside from her spicy jalapeno-green hair, which screamed rockabilly when it fell halfway down her back from victory rolls in old-Hollywood style waves. She’d swapped the jewelry in her visible piercings for tame studs. The majority of her tattoos had been partially obscured, peeking in colorful bursts from beneath the fringes and eyelets of her dress. Hell, her nails hadn’t seen a French manicure since…ever. The tips of her fingers—so pink versus her usual maroon, dark purple, or sparkly black—made her feel kind of naked.
It wasn’t often she went to this kind of trouble for a man, but Burke Levine wasn’t just any guy.
She was pretty damn sure he was The Guy.
Chavon hoped her concessions to modesty—muting her wild ways—would be a turn on for her clean-cut soldier, who didn’t have a single drop of ink on his sexy body yet still managed to be the most drool-worthy man she’d met in her life. Because he’d been acting strange lately.
Maybe she was…too much for him. Too intense.
Afraid of becoming a curiosity instead of something he could live with forever, like a bold wallpaper that turned ugly when the novelty soured, she’d bent her usual fashion into a flavor that blended their extremes.
It would take some convincing to talk herself into believing she hadn’t sold out.
Six of the best months of her life made it easy to rationalize her compromises. Then again, maybe Burke would come over tonight only to tell her to change into something more her style. She wouldn’t be able to swallow the three-word declaration she’d been biting her tongue to keep from blurting for a while if he did that.
Could his job be causing his recent distraction? Insidious distance wedged between them, even when he held her so tight she could hear every beat of his racing heart after a round or four of the sweaty sex they excelled at together.
Last night she’d woken sometime after midnight, yet before Burke usually left around the crack of dawn for PT—hardcore working out—with his fellow Marines, to find him sitting on the edge of the bed. His back had been to her as he braced his head in his hands and his elbows on his spread knees. Moonlight had glinted off his close-cropped hair and limned his rock-hard bod in ways that made her wish she had some skill as an artist.
Instead she’d settled for laying light kisses on his tense muscles, which she massaged until they both lost their minds from the contact of their bare skin and he did something about it.
A whole lot of delicious somethings.
Who could blame him for worrying when he faced violence at any time? Though he proudly served their country, and looked fine in his uniform while doing it, the idea of being shipped to a combat zone would give any rational human being some pause. Wouldn’t it?
Chavon fluffed a lock, watching it spring into place thanks to lots of product and her expert wielding of hot curling irons. Before she could fuss over it more, a rough knock came at the door.
It actually sounded like pounding.
Had Burke forgotten his key that morning?
She hadn’t seen it lying around anywhere. Maybe he’d lost it on base.
With one last double-check in the beveled glass, she trotted for the door. Breathless, though not from her short jog on her admittedly tall heels—hey, a girl had to have some fun—she whipped open the door.
“Are you ever going to check before you let a stranger in here?” Burke looked adorable when he scrubbed his hand over his eyes, accentuating the crinkles at the corners that emerged when he took care of her.
“Nah. My boyfriend will kick the ass of any idiot who tries to hurt me.” She’d never experienced the kind of security he granted her. But when she ducked in for a hug and kiss on the cheek, eager to feel his steely arms banded around her, he dodged.
Off balance, she tripped. He steadied her before yanking his hand away as if singed by the brief contact.
What the fuck? She couldn’t win. Did he not approve of her modified appearance?
Instead of answering, he dug in the back pocket of his ripped jeans. She wished she had the rear view while he fiddled with the papers he brought out to show her.
They couldn’t be.
She steeled herself for the news they’d both been dreading. They’d get through this together. Hell, she’d already stockpiled several vintage lingerie sets to model while posing for pinup pictures she could mail him in extra special care packages.
“Chavon, I’ve got to go.” He unwadded the creased orders as his Adam’s apple bobbed beneath the force of his swallow.
“I know.” She reached for him. Again he retreated. “Right now?”
“I—” There was that damn flexing of his throat again, as if the words he tried so hard to say had lodged in an enormous knot he could hardly speak around.
“How bad is it?” She crumpled her lace hem between shaking fingers. “Spit it out, Burke.”
“No matter where I go, it’s not healthy for you. Waiting. Wondering. Fearing.” The crumpled documents shook in his over-tightened hold.
“Wh-what are you trying to say?” An ache thumped in her chest.
“I’m setting you free.” He didn’t have the decency to look her in the eye when he broke her heart. “I won’t doom you to a life alone. You deserve better than what I can give you. Hell, I might never come home.”
“You’re quitting on us?” She staggered back a few steps, tottering on her heels.
“It’s not like that.” He swallowed hard.
“The hell it isn’t.” She growled at him, uncaring that it could be the last time he heard her voice. “I never took you for a coward.”
“Chavon, it’s for your own good. I…care for you. I don’t want to see you hurt.” If he really believed that sack of shit, he didn’t know her any better than the guy who’d stood behind her in line at the post office earlier.
“Then you’re doing a shitty job. Get the hell out of here!” She didn’t give a damn if he flinched when she raised her voice to him for the first time. Certainly for the last time. As much as she wanted to slam the door hard enough to shatter every single-pane window in it, like he’d done to her soul, she resisted. Because part of her had to squeeze every last drop out of their time together.
Burke backed slowly away then turned to slink down the wrought iron stairway of her ancient building. She barely heard when he whispered, “Good-bye, baby.”
She couldn’t help herself from responding. She’d hate herself later if she didn’t say it. “Be safe.”
His slumped shoulders flinched as if she’d shot him in the back. But he didn’t turn around or so much as peek over his shoulder as he walked away, out of her life forever.
The dumbass had done exactly what he’d proclaimed to fear. He’d made her a war widow. Except one who suffered at the beginning of the deployment rather than later on. This was worse. Because he’d chosen to leave her alone.
Most of the heroes she knew had fought to return to their spouses or lovers.
Burke hadn’t cared enough to bother.
Chavon did a slow turn around her apartment and saw his ghost in every nook. From the corner where they’d put up their first—and final—Christmas tree together, making love under the twinkling lights, to the charred spot on the counter where he’d failed her cooking lessons and ordered pizza instead. Even the place where he usually dropped his boots seemed hollow.
And she knew he would haunt her here. He’d stolen her heart and her home.
A sniffle escaped her desperate clutch on control. It wouldn’t be long before the dam broke. She had something to arrange before it imploded. Rummaging through the wastepaper basket beside her salvaged desk, she fished out a creased business card. It belonged to an old friend who’d recently leased a spot in a prime location in New Orleans for her quirky boutique.
Without pausing to consider how crazy the idea was, Chavon lurched for her cell phone and dialed. Attempting normal hadn’t gotten her anywhere. So why not go wild? Follow her heart and take a leap of faith. Unlike some people, she was willing to trust. Even if that meant sometimes she got as burned as the Formica in her galley kitchen.
“Nicolette?” She hardly gave her friend time to answer before she asked, “Is the merchandizing position still available?”
Hell, it would be her dream job to sort through secondhand items, garage sales, and flea markets for the treasures she could rarely afford. Especially if she could buy them with someone else’s money. Waiting tables was something she’d been willing to continue doing for Burke in Pensacola’s limited job market. She’d been ready to sacrifice an enormous opportunity for him. Even if he couldn’t say the same.
“Chavon? Is that you?” Nicolette wondered out loud. “You sound, different…”
“It’s me, yes.” She didn’t bother to lie and say she was fine. “Look, my situation…changed. I’m hoping you can still use me for the shop—”
“Yes! Oh God, yes.” A whoosh of air sounded harsh against the receiver. “I’m so glad you called. The opening is in two weeks and the window display looks horrible. No one here has an eye like you. Would you do it? Seriously? You’re thinking of joining me after all? Was it the money that made you hesitate? I’ll up your salary and cut you in on a percentage of profits.”
“Consider it done.” Chavon didn’t bother negotiating the details. “I’ll be there Monday with my stuff. Not that I have a lot, but I’ll need to crash with you until I can find a place of my own.”
“We’ll make it work.” Nicolette sounded as if she had choked up. That made two of them. “I’m so happy to have you on board. Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” Chavon disconnected before she lost it.
Stuffing the pain shredding her insides to the background, she ripped off the dress she’d worn for Burke, threw it in the trash, and started packing.
Good-bye, Pensacola. Hello, New Orleans.