The picture that scene presented in Erin’s mind was amusing enough to bring a smile to her lips. She hadn’t been doing a lot of smiling lately. Not since her phone conversation with Brand.
Over and over she’d played back their discussion in her mind. There were better ways of handling the situation with Brand. Yet she’d accomplished what she’d set out to do. Her methods hadn’t been the best, but then, she’d never handled anything like this before.
A few days after speaking to Brand for the last time, she’d sat down and written her father a letter hot enough to blister the mailman’s fingers. She’d poured out her outrage, claimed he’d insulted her intelligence and her sense of pride and demanded that he stay out of her life.
In the morning she’d tossed the letter into the garbage where it belonged. Her father couldn’t be blamed because she’d fallen in love with Brand Davis. As much as she’d like to fault her overprotective parent, all he’d done was ask Brand to check up on her. Everything else that had happened was strictly between her and the lieutenant j.g.
Feeling pleased for Marilyn, Erin drove back to her house, showered and readied for bed. She hadn’t eaten anything before class, and an inspection of the freezer disclosed one frozen Salisbury steak entree with sick-looking watery mashed potatoes and cubed carrots. The entree looked as though it might have been left by the previous owner of the house.
Unable to shake the melancholy feeling, Erin hadn’t taken the time to buy groceries that weekend. And she didn’t want to traipse into the local grocery store in her flannel nightgown at this late hour.
It was either the entree or a can of lima beans.
"Why would you buy lima beans?" she asked herself aloud. "You don’t even like them."
The habit of talking to herself was becoming more pronounced, she noted, wondering what she should do about it, if anything.
Standing in front of the microwave in her bare feet, her hair wet and glistening from her shower, Erin watched the digital numbers count down. The smell of the Salisbury steak wasn’t proving to be all that promising.
The timer on the microwave dinged at the same time as the doorbell chimed. It took Erin a second to realize the direction of the second bell. Her gaze swiveled from the microwave to the front door and then back again while her mind raced.
No one she knew would be visiting this time of night. But then, it wasn’t likely that a burglar would announce himself, either.
Walking barefoot across the carpet, she squinted and peered out the peephole to find an eye from the other side looking back at her. She leaped back and placed her hand . over her heart. She’d have recognized that eye anywhere.
"Come on, Erin, open up. I’m in no mood to be left standing on your porch."
Pulling back the dead bolt, Erin yanked open the door. She held on to the knob and resisted the urge to launch herself straight into his arms. That fact alone answered every question she’d been taunting herself with the last two days.
Brand walked inside and set down his bag. He looked like hell. Worse. As if he’d been dragged under a car or forced to sleep in an upright position for three nights straight. A two-day beard darkened his face, and his eyes were bloodshot.
"What’s that god-awful smell?" he demanded.
"My dinner." She couldn’t keep from staring at him. Even though she’d never seen him look worse, he was still the most incredibly handsome man she’d even seen in her life. Incredibly wonderful, too.
"What are you doing eating dinner this late?"
"What time is it?"
"Hell, I don’t know. I just spent the last twenty hours on every conceivable means of transportation you can name. For all I know, it could be noon sometime in July."
"Fool’s Day, no doubt."
"No." As hard as she tried, she couldn’t stop staring at him. Even now, while they were carrying on a two-way conversation, she couldn’t be entirely sure it was really him and not some figment of her imagination. She resisted the urge to reach out and touch him, which was even more powerful than the need to be in his arms.
"What are you doing here?"
His eyes met hers. "I don’t know anymore. I asked myself that same question about the time I was on my third means of military transport."
"How long is your pass for?"
"Four days, but to be honest, I don’t know how much of that time is left. Maybe I should just say what I want to say and be done with it, then get the hell out of here."
"Do you want something to eat?" That she should offer him anything was something of a joke, considering that she was warming a prehistoric frozen entree for herself.
"Not if you’re planning on serving the same thing you’re eating. It smells like…" He left the rest unsaid, because it was apparent what he meant.
"I’ll order a pizza." Somehow that made perfect sense to Erin. The fact that he was with her, standing inside her home, didn’t, but she hadn’t figured out a way to deal with that just yet.
"I think I should sit down," Brand announced unexpectedly. He walked across her carpet and lowered himself onto the sofa, which was against the outside wall. Then he paused and looked around, as if he couldn’t quite believe he was with her.
"I’ll just be a minute," she said, walking backward, thinking he might vanish if she took her eyes away from him. The flyer she’d received in the mail a few days earlier from a national pizza chain was pinned to her bulletin board along with the discount coupon. With that in hand, she punched out the phone number and ordered a delux pepperoni pizza.
By the time she returned to the living room, Brand was sound asleep on her sofa.
Brand woke not knowing where he was. He sat bolt upright, kicking aside several blankets, and glanced around him. He still didn’t know. The feeling was an eerie one.
Exhausted, he rubbed a hand down his face and gave his eyes time to adjust to the thick darkness, then slowly, thoughtfully, reviewed what he did remember.
In a flash it came to him. He was at Erin’s house.
Erin. If anyone had told him even two months ago that he’d go through so many trials to get to a woman, he would have sworn they were nuts. If he’d ever doubted his love for her, making it from Hawaii to Seattle by way of Japan and Alaska proved otherwise.
And for what? He wasn’t going to be able to talk any sense into her. Nothing had worked yet, but that wasn’t going to stop him. Casey had claimed she was as stubborn as a Tennessee mule, and the old man was right.
But, damn it all, Brand couldn’t turn his back on love and simply walk away. The way he figured it, he had only one chance with her, and that was face-to-face.
Standing, he turned on a couple of lights and noted the time. Five a.m. He found his suitcase and showered.
By the time Erin stirred, he had a pot of coffee brewed.
"Good morning," she said, standing in the doorway. She raised the back of her hand to her mouth and yawned loudly. "There’s some leftover pizza in the refrigerator if you’re hungry."
"You should have woke me."
"What makes you think I didn’t try."
"I wouldn’t wake up?"
"The entire Third Infantry couldn’t have stirred you."
He felt a bit sheepish about that. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to crash at your place."
"Don’t worry about it. If nothing else, you’ve given my neighbors a reason to introduce themselves." Yawning once more, she made her way into the bathroom.
It was difficult for Brand to keep his eyes off her. She was disheveled and warm from her bed. Without the least bit of trouble, his imagination kicked into gear. It was much too easy to picture himself in bed with Erin. He could feel her cuddled up against him, her warm, pale skin caressing his. He would put his hands on her breasts and lift them so that they filled his palms. Her nipples would tighten even before he could graze them with his thumbs.
Brand’s breath became quick and shallow, and he half closed his eyes, savoring the fantasy. Desire throbbed through him, tightening the muscles of his thighs and his abdomen.
He felt a deep, almost painful sense of yearning for her. Not a physical need. Hell, what was he thinking? Yes, he did need her physically. He’d never wanted a woman as bad as he did Erin. But what he was experiencing now was a higher plane of yearning, a profound longing. An emotional, spiritual craving he’d never understood fully until this moment. It troubled him, knowing how much was at stake in this brief time with Erin.
A few minutes later, she returned to the kitchen, dressed in a dark blue business suit. The skirt was straight and emphasized her long legs and the rounded curves of her hips and buttocks. The jacket was tailored, and the shoulders were padded. Brand poured her a cup of coffee in an effort to break the spell she had over him.
"Thanks," she whispered, pulled out a chair and sat down.
"I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing here?" he asked, realizing he sounded defensive. He was treading on thin ice with Erin, and he knew it. One wrong word and he could lose her, and that was what Brand feared most.
"I can’t help wondering why you came." She braced her elbows against the glass tabletop and poised the mug of steaming coffee in front of her lips.
Brand fully intended to answer her, launch into his campaign of reason, but for the life of him he couldn’t take his eyes off her mouth. Those sweet, delectable lips of hers were driving him insane.
"Would you mind if I kiss you first?"
She lowered her head so fast it was amazing her chin didn’t collide with her coffee mug. "I don’t think that would be a good idea."
"Why not?" he questioned softly. He pulled out the chair next to her, twisted it around and straddled it.
"You know why," she countered swiftly.
His sweet Irish rose looked so professional and imperturbable that it was enough to challenge any red-blooded male. He couldn’t help himself. He pressed his index finger under her chin and raised her gaze to his. Then he leaned forward slightly and gently brushed his mouth over hers.
She released a soft sigh, and when Brand moved back he noted that her eyes remained closed and her mouth was moist and ready for further exploration.
Brand was willing, more than willing to comply.
He took her mouth again, applying a subtle pressure. He heard her coffee mug hit the table, but if it spilled or not he didn’t know. Erin moaned and parted her lips for him, inviting the investigation of his tongue.
It was amazing, Brand thought, that they could be so intimate while sitting in chairs and leaning toward each other.
Her hands were braced against his shoulders and his were in her hair as he slowly rotated his mouth over hers, molding her lips with his, deepening and demanding even more from her.
Erin didn’t disappoint him. She’d learned her lessons well.
Somehow Brand managed to get them into an upright position. Her arms locked around his neck, and she was squirming against him in the most tantalizing way, with a hunger that matched his own. Brand groaned, tormented by a heavy load of frustration.