Excerpt for Loving You Is Easy

Copyright Wendy S. Marcus 2014

 

November 4, 2011

Dear Sergeant Develen,

My name is Brooke Ellstein. I’m a seventh and eighth grade math teacher responsible for coordinating NYS Governor Howard’s Support Our Troops Initiative that matches active-duty members of the military, serving overseas, with school classrooms across New York State. (In case you’re wondering how my involvement came about, my father is currently the New York State comptroller, and he works closely with the governor.)

Thank you for agreeing to participate, and congratulations on making the list of prospective pen pals. All the servicemen and -women were personally vetted by their commanding officers and determined to be exemplary soldiers of high moral character.

Unfortunately, it now falls to me to inform you we’ve wound up with several soldiers, such as yourself, who are not now nor have ever been residents of/or stationed in New York State, yet were included on our list in error. For that I apologize.

To make amends, I’m contacting all of the soldiers with out-of-state bios to offer an alternative. You see, my friends and I are happy to serve as pen pals in place of the students. If you’re interested, I paired you up with me. I’ve enclosed a picture of myself so you know who you’d be exchanging letters with. (It doesn’t seem fair for me to have your picture and you not to have mine.)

If it matters, I’m twenty-four years old, single, and I enjoy running, hiking, and bike riding.

If you’d like to be my pen pal, and I really hope you do, please write me back at the PO box provided on the envelope. I look forward to hearing from you. But no pressure—I understand if you’d rather not. Again, I apologize for any inconvenience or disappointment the mix-up has caused.

Sincerely,

Brooke Ellstein

 

 

November 18, 2011

Dear Brooke,

Sure. I’m all for having a pretty pen pal from back home. As long as you know—and I can’t think of a nice way to put this so I’m just going to write it—I am not in the market for a girlfriend, long distance or when I come home. I realize saying that in my first letter makes me sound like a jerk. I mean, who do I think I am? But I’m being honest and putting it out there so you know where I stand from the start. I’m here to do a job and I need to focus on that job completely.

On the off chance you haven’t balled up my letter and tossed it into the trash, and I hope you didn’t, I’ll tell you a little bit about myself. (Not sure what’s in the bio you have.)

 

I’m twenty-five years old. I went into the army right out of high school. I grew up in New Jersey; my family still lives there. When I’m not deployed overseas, I’m stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. I’m currently a little over one month into a twelve-month deployment to Afghanistan. This is my fourth time over here.

I enjoy running and hiking, too. (Although not with a full ruck.) I can’t remember the last time I was on a bicycle.

If I haven’t completely offended you and you still want to be my pen pal, do me a favor and include your e-mail address in your next letter. Internet is spotty, but some days it’s easier to type out an e-mail than sit and write.

Looking forward to your next letter if you choose to send one,

Shane

 

 

October 18, 2012

Chapter One

“No,” Brooke Ellstein whispered as she stared at the image on her laptop in horrified disbelief. “No, no, no.” She adjusted the angle of the screen, as if that might make the picture disappear.

It didn’t.

The front door opened as her best friend, Neve, who’d called and instructed her to hop onto Facebook pronto, used her key to walk right into Brooke’s condo, carrying a pitcher of what looked like her yummy margaritas and two glasses. “Sorry. I thought I’d make it over before you logged on.” She went straight to the kitchen, set the glasses on the counter, and filled each to the rim. “Before we get to work on damage control, I’d like to take a moment to say, while that photograph is a total surprise, because, frankly, I didn’t think you had it in you to send your army pen pal sexy snapshots, you look amazing. If I had legs like yours I would not be hiding them under slacks and knee-length shorts and skirts.”

“Don’t you start.” Brooke waved her off. “It was a tastefully done photograph taken by a professional photographer.” Magazine quality, if she did say so herself. A five-by-seven-inch print in high gloss and laminated to withstand frequent travel and extreme weather. Hand delivered, precisely to avoid the situation she found herself in at this exact moment.

And wouldn’t you know it? The photo, posted on Facebook by a stranger thirteen hours earlier, for her friends and family and several hundred random strangers to see, the one of her in the deep red negligée and matching thong panties, was the most risqué of them all. She was looking over her shoulder with the come-hither look she’d practiced in the mirror, part of her left butt cheek exposed, wearing the strappy silver stilettos she’d purchased to complete the image Shane had detailed in one of his letters while describing a dream he’d had about her.

“Right.” Neve placed a frosty glass next to the laptop, pulled out the chair beside Brooke, and sat down. “No slutty selfies for you, girlfriend.”

Absolutely not. She was an Ellstein, after all. Held to a higher standard, her mother would say. “How is it possible that five hundred and twenty-seven people have liked this picture when I only have two hundred and nineteen Facebook friends?” The magnitude of the unsettling situation draped over her shoulders like an uncomfortably saturated wool blanket. She cringed at the thought of her judgmental sisters seeing it. And, heaven forbid, her mother!

“It has to do with your privacy settings, or lack of privacy settings, apparently,” her social-media-savvy friend explained, positioning the laptop so they could both see it.

Her participation in the governor’s Support Our Troops Initiative had just taken a horrible, unexpected turn. How could she have been so wrong about Shane? How could she have allowed him to push through her defenses, to work his way into her trust, into her heart, making her feel safe to share snippets of her private life, her innermost thoughts and feelings . . . and four rather revealing photos?

Apparently his company commander had misjudged him, too.

“Chad Deyo,” Neve read the name of the man who’d posted the picture. “Who is this guy?”

“I have no idea.” Brooke studied his profile picture. A typical soldier. A man dressed in full army fatigues, standing tall and proud in some desert location, holding a big gun across his chest. “He must be a friend of Shane’s.” She’d accepted friend requests from a few of them who interacted on his profile, always hoping to catch a bit of news.

Brooke leaned in closer and noticed Chad had written a caption above her picture. She read it out loud, “Nothing better than sexy pictures of hotties from back home. This one is my personal favorite. So what do you say, Brooke Ellstein?” Her name appeared in blue. “Now that Gump is back in the States, how about being my pen pal?”

She sucked in a breath. Pictures as in plural. He had them all? What about her letters? Brooke’s lungs seized. This man, this stranger, had the intimate pictures and private letters she’d intended for Shane’s viewing only? Why? How could he—wait a minute. She scanned the post again. “Now that Gump”—Shane’s military nickname—“is back in the States . . .” Shane was back in the United States?

“You okay?” Neve placed her warm hand on Brooke’s forearm.

No. She was not okay. Brooke lifted her glass and gulped down half the contents.

“Whoa,” Neve warned. “There’s a lot of liquor in that there drink.”

Brooke didn’t care. Two and a half months. It’d been almost two and a half months since Shane’s last contact about two weeks after he’d returned from his leave, when he’d told her he was heading to a new base. He’d be out of touch for a while and not to write until she heard from him. And while she’d been waiting and worrying and praying for his safety, he’d returned to the United States? Without even bothering to tell her?

Two names caught her eye. “Oh. My. God.” Some of the “likes” and comments she’d thought were from random strangers weren’t from strangers at all. “My students.” She recognized the names of several of her seventh and eighth graders. Her stomach churned. “I was so careful not to accept any friend requests from my students. How is it possible they are seeing this picture?”

“Someone who is friends with them, maybe one of your colleagues, must have commented or liked it, which would have transferred the picture to their feed.”

Brooke clicked on a name she knew, landing on her student’s page. “One mutual friend.” She held the cursor over the tiny profile and the name of the most popular teacher in the math department of her school popped up, a man she’d accepted as a friend on Facebook.

The phone rang. Lost in thought, Brooke walked to the counter and answered it. “Hello.”

“It’s Liz,” said the principal of the private junior high school where she worked. A longtime friend of her parents, Liz never called Brooke at home. “Have you seen what’s happening on Facebook?”

Oh, God. Liz knew. “I just found out. I can explain.”

“I’m sure you can,” Liz responded kindly. “But have you taken the time to read through the comments?”

Brooke swallowed. “Uh, no. Not yet.”

Never one to dainty up the truth, Liz came right out and said, “There’s an implication you’ve had sex with a minor.”

The words packed a wallop that landed mid-sternum. Somehow she managed to choke out, “Hold on.” While she rubbed at the pain in her chest with one hand, she used the other to push the microphone on the portable phone against her belly as she turned to Neve and whispered, “Check the comments. Did someone claim I had sex with a minor?”

With a look of absolute horror that surely mirrored Brooke’s own, Neve turned her attention to the computer screen and began scrolling through the comments. After a few seconds she looked up, her eyes wide, her expression grave, and nodded. “A boy wrote his fifteen-year-old brother said he had sex with you,” she whispered. “Damn it.” Neve slammed her hand on the table so hard the glasses shook. “That irresponsible heathen isn’t old enough to understand slander. Where the hell are his parents? This is unconscionable.”

While Brooke appreciated her friend’s steadfast acceptance of her innocence, it was Liz she needed to convince. “It’s not true, Liz. You can’t possibly believe it’s true.”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe. The accusation has been made. Parents have flooded my e-mail and voice mail with messages. Honey, I had no choice. Per school policy the incident must be reported to the police immediately. I’m calling to let you know they’ve opened an investigation.”

This could not be happening. Brooke stumbled back and dropped into her chair. Suddenly it felt like there wasn’t enough air in the room. She clutched at her chest.

Neve fanned her with a place mat.

“This is insane. You know me. You’ve known me since I was a baby. You know I would never, ever . . .” Brooke couldn’t even say the words out loud. Sex with a minor? It went against everything she believed in, as a teacher, as a moral human being. She wanted to vomit at the thought of it.

“I know. But there are protocols that need to be followed in these situations, starting with an immediate suspension, at full pay, while the investigation takes place. Of course you’ll be found innocent.”

But Brooke knew the damage to her reputation and her credibility as a teacher would be irreparable. She was still trying to process that she’d been suspended from the job she loved—the job she’d been dreaming about since she’d been a student in that very same junior high—and that she would soon be the subject of a police investigation, a police investigation, when Liz added, “I’m sorry, dear, but of course I had to call your mother.”

Of course she had. Brooke set her elbow on the table and dropped her forehead into her palm, banging it again and again and again. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

No sooner had she hung up the phone and placed it on the counter it rang again. Probably her mother all fired up and raring to chastise her about once again being an embarrassment to the family and/or scold her for failing to think about how her irresponsible actions affected her father’s political campaign and her sisters’ marital prospects. The phone might as well have been a scorpion, tail raised in her direction ready to strike. She cringed when the answering machine beeped, expecting the worst, when a man’s voice spoke. “It’s Shane. I wanted to—”

The sound of his voice put a lifetime of rigid self-control, quiet acceptance, and always letting good manners prevail to the ultimate test. She considered not answering, just walking into the other room and ignoring him. But he’d come home and hadn’t called her. He’d shared at least one of her photos. He wasn’t at all the man she’d thought him to be. Unmitigated hurt and anger forced her hand to the phone. “How could you let this happen?” she asked, fighting to keep an even tone. “I trusted you. I’ve written to you several times a week for months. We’ve talked on the phone. I’ve sent you care packages. When you needed special socks I went to three different stores to find them. When you sounded depressed about having to spend your third birthday in a war zone I tried to cheer you up by giving you the negligee pictures you’d been begging me for. What was I thinking?”

“I’m trying to—” he tried to talk but now that Brooke had started she couldn’t stop.

“You came home and didn’t have the decency to call me to let me know you were okay? Two and a half months of no contact and now this.”

“Let me—”

“You shared me with your friends.” The thought disgusted her.

Neve’s eyebrows shot up.

Brooke looked away. “You betrayed me.” Her heart ached like it never had before.

“I did not,” Shane answered the accusation calmly. “At least not in the way you think.”

“Yet someone I don’t know, someone named,”—Brooke leaned in close to the laptop screen to read the name of the person intent on ruining her reputation—“Chad Deyo, who has a profile picture that looks very army and very similar to yours, has posted a picture of me on his Facebook page.” She fought to keep control over her emotions amid a rising sense of panic. “A picture I gave to you. A picture I intended for only you to see. A picture you promised to keep private. My God, how could I have been so stupid?” Anger started to push against the barricades of her restraint.

Neve shook her head. “It’s not like you at all.”

She knew that. “You’re not helping,” Brooke snapped at Neve, who met her uncharacteristic outburst with a look of shock.

Shane spoke through the phone, “Try to relax. That’s one of the reasons I’m calling—to tell you I’m going to fix this.”

Was he serious? “Are you for real? You’re going to fix it? Exactly how do you plan to go about it? Are you going to somehow make each of the five hundred some odd people who saw my picture un-see it?” She started to pace.

“Or do you plan to call the police to convince them to halt their investigation of me? Because after seeing my half-naked picture on Facebook, a fifteen-year-old brother of one of my students is claiming he had sex with me.” She shook out her right hand just to burn off some negative energy and turned back toward the kitchen.

“Then maybe you’ll get in touch with my boss so you can convince her to call off my suspension?” She made herself sound hopeful. “And will you come here to hold my hand when I go out in public and have to deal with the hurtful comments and accusations people will no doubt throw in my direction once word gets out, which they will no doubt do regardless of my guilt or innocence? Great. That’s great. You get right on that, will you?”

Neve watched her with wide, worried eyes.

Shane said, “I had no idea things had gotten so out of control. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” Brooke repeated, squeezing her eyes shut, visualizing herself smacking him across his face, the image so real, the need so intense her hand actually stung a little. “That’s the best you can do? Well, I’ll give you that. You are sorry. A sorry excuse for a boyfriend.”

Neve’s mouth dropped open.

In the stunned silence that followed, Brooke wondered if this night could get any worse.

When Shane’s flat, unemotional voice came through the receiver, “I’m not your boyfriend, Brooke,” she realized yes, her night could, in fact, get worse.

Because the man she’d exchanged hundreds of letters and e-mails with, the man she’d Skyped with and spoken on the phone with and taken sexy pictures for, the man who filled her dreams, both day and night, and that special place in her heart, felt nothing for her. Tears filled her eyes.

“You still there?” he asked quietly.

Instead of answering she disconnected the call. She’d reached her limit, could not deal with one more thing. While she sat there staring at the phone, it rang. She yanked the chord at the base out of the wall.

A minute later her cellphone rang.

As calmly as she could she walked to the coffee table, found the cellphone in her purse, and turned it off. “I’m tired,” she told Neve without looking at her, needing to be alone, unwilling to break down in the presence of others, even her best friend.

“You go lie down, “Neve said. “Since you’re logged on to Facebook, I’m going poke around to see what kind of damage control I can do.”

Brooke drank down the rest of her margarita then walked to her bedroom, her body feeling twenty pounds heavier than it had at the start of the evening. Because she knew that whatever Neve could accomplish, it wouldn’t be enough.

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