“Get outta here. There’s no art at West Point.”
“There is art at West Point,” he assured her.
“So what do you do now?”
“I’m in the army.”
For the first time, her smile dimmed. “What are you doing roaming around with the general public, then?”
“I’m on leave. That’s allowed.”
“I’m going back to Afghanistan next month.”
That killed her smile outright but, to her credit, she recaptured it pretty quickly. “Back? So you know how to stay safe, right?”
“Let’s hope so.”
“How long will you be over there?”
He tried to keep his voice light, but that was hard with the shadow of war doing its best to block out the sun. “Not long. A year.”
“I’ve never really met a soldier. I guess I don’t travel in military circles.”
“You’ve met one now, haven’t you?”
“I’m going to write to you.” She hesitated, seeming to think better of this plan. “Or do you have too many pen pals already?”
This announcement infused him with an unreasonable and inappropriate shot of happiness. Too late, he remembered Sky and felt a stab of guilt, which he shoved aside. It wasn’t as if he was going to date this art teacher. A few letters while he was overseas. What could happen?
And honesty was always the best policy.
“Not many. Just my fiancée.” It seemed important to get that out there, for the record. Or maybe he just needed to remind himself that this woman could never be anything more to him than a friend.
“Will she mind? Tell her I’m not trying to steal you away or anything. I have a boyfriend.”
He stared at her.
For one bewildering second, before he caught himself, he tried to decide which possibility was worse: that she spent her nights rolling around in bed with some faceless but clearly lucky dude, or that she was oblivious to what he considered some pretty serious electricity crackling between them.
But, again—he was engaged.
This woman, and any other interesting woman who might happen across his path in life, was therefore off-limits.
On the other hand, he could always use a new pen pal.
“I don’t think she’ll mind,” he told her.
“Great.” Beaming, she grabbed pen and paper from the table and handed them to him. “I’ve never been a pen pal before. I’ll be great. You’ll see. I’ll take my responsibilities very seriously.”
He’d lapsed into grinning again—her smile was very contagious—but he paused to fix her with a stern look before he wrote down his information.
“See that you do. It’s very bad manners to get a soldier’s hopes up and then never write.”
“I won’t let you down.”
Talia hadn’t let him down, ever.
Until that terrible day when she’d rejected his final letter.
Why had she—
“What’s up, Cap?”
“Hey, Mick,” Tony said automatically, not fully registering Mickey’s presence. “What’s up?”
“Well, I was thinking about taking some lunch down to the beach.”
The thing was, Tony reminded himself, Talia was afraid of something, and he needed to respect that. Give her time. See if she’d open up—
“Are you listening to me, Cap? ’Cause I get the feeling you’re not listening to anything I’m saying.”
—But what if she never opened up? What if she kept all those walls between them? What then? It wasn’t as if these art projects were going to last forever—
“And I’m thinking that I could start babbling a bunch of nonsense right now and you’d never notice, Cap. For example, what if I said the Taliban is coming up the lane right now? What do you think? What about if I said this giant-ass meteor is heading right for our beach and we’ll be dead in ten minutes? Would you hear me then? What if I said that I think that woman has your panties in a bunch? What about that?”
—And what if she finished both projects and they never came any closer than they were now? Huh? What then, genius? And what if—
“What about this, Cap? What if I say her name a few dozen times? I think I’ll try that. Talia. Talia… Talia… Talia.”